Right wing Nadine Muzerall was practicing with her Minnesota teammates last Thursday in Boston when she tripped and fell awkwardly, snapping her head back against the ice. The next thing she knew, her upper body was being immobilized with braces and straps, an ambulance was backing up to the rink at Matthews Arena, and she was being rushed in a panic of flashing lights and sirens to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. This happened on the eve of the national championship tournament.
"I was thinking, Just let me play," said Muzerall, the leading goal scorer in women's college hockey this season, with 49. "I had a sharp pain right on my spine, but I could feel my limbs. When I realized they were just taking every precaution, I started saying, 'Please, I want to play' "
Muzerall was, of course, hoping to lead the Golden Gophers to the national title. First, however, she wanted desperately to have the last word in what has fast become the best rivalry in women's hockey. To her great relief she was released from the hospital within two hours, having suffered no serious injury. By Friday afternoon she had been cleared to play in the semifinal that night against Minnesota-Duluth—a game that would help open up the borders of her sport.
Minnesota has been a ranked outsider since it put its first women's team on the ice, in 1997-98. Muzerall, a Canadian who graduated from Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., was among its initial recruits. The Gophers' debut happened to coincide with the launching of the national championship tournament, a sparse four-team event managed by the American Women's College Hockey Alliance (AWCHA), a new adjunct of USA Hockey. Minnesota finished fourth in 1998 and third last season while serving as the token noneastern school to be invited to the tournament. The national championships in those years were won by New Hampshire and Harvard, respectively, and fittingly, for they and their New England rivals had been competing in the sport decades before anyone had dreamed that 1) women's hockey would be recognized as an Olympic sport and 2) a victory by the U.S. at the 1998 Games would raise the sport to a new level of popularity.
Before Muzerall and her teammates could figure out how to overtake New England, they were dealt a new threat by an upstate neighbor. Minnesota-Duluth, a traditional rival to the Gophers in men's hockey, announced that it was going to assemble a women's team this season. Duluth as much as declared war by handing a three-year, $210,000 contract to Shannon Miller, who coached Canada to the 1998 Olympic final in Nagano. Miller recruited players from Canada, Finland and Sweden, including four Olympians. She also spirited a pair of players away from Minnesota: star forward Jenny Schmidgall, whose 93 points this season led the nation, and defenseman Brittny Ralph, who would serve as the Bulldogs' captain. Just like that it seemed as if the first-year team had overtaken the state's third-year team. This season Duluth would lose just once to the Gophers in their first five meetings, which included a 2-0 Bulldogs victory in the final of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.
That defeat forced Minnesota to sweat out an at-large bid to the national championships. No longer could the Gophers worry merely about overtaking the New England schools—they had enough on their minds just trying to become the best team in their state. "We make each other better," Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said of her team's rivalry with Duluth. "We push each other."
They did more than that when they met on Friday night at Matthews Arena. They shoved and slashed and ran each other into the boards. Checking of any kind is supposed to be illegal in women's hockey, but the Minnesota schools staged a violent protest to that rule. Not that anyone was complaining. With nine minutes remaining in the second period and the Gophers trailing 2-0, Muzerall produced her 47th goal of the season. At the same juncture of the third period, her 48th (a power-play goal) evened the score. At one point she absorbed a shot that whipped her head back, forcing her to steady herself momentarily before renewing her chase after the puck. "That one knocked snot bubbles right out on the mask," Muzerall announced afterward.
With 6:45 remaining, center Tracy Engstrom scored Minnesota's second power-play goal of the night. It stood up for a 3-2 victory, even as players from both teams kept knocking each other flat in front of the Gophers' net during the frantic culminating minutes. Minnesota goalie Erica Killewald, the tournament's MVP, stopped 16 shots in the final period. "We killed off four penalties and still outshot them 16-5," Miller said. "That means that five-on-five we absolutely dominated, but when you're in the penalty box that much, you don't deserve to win."
Brown took a less break-neck approach to reach its second national championship final in three years. This season coach Digit Murphy, who has been building her program since 1988, used virtually every player on her bench and eventually wore out opponents. She even went so far as to take the advice of a volunteer assistant coach by allowing her centers to take turns choosing the wings on their lines, like kids after school picking touch-football teams. There was no arguing with the result—her team withstood a season-ending ACL injury to its best player, U.S. Olympic defenseman Tara Mounsey, and went on to win nine straight games entering Saturday night's national championship game.
Brown took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but 4:47 into the second period Minnesota equalized when senior left wing Shannon Kennedy fed her younger sister Courtney, a junior defenseman, who scored off her own rebound. Muzerall would assist on the next goal and then score as the Gophers ran off four unanswered goals against Ali Brewer, who on Thursday night had been named winner of the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as women's national player of the year.